La Liga Review previews the Champions League Semi Final first leg between FC Barcelona and Manchester United at the Camp Nou: plus Team News
Lies, damn lies and statistics. It's been a frenzied 24 hours in Barcelona for La Liga review in the build up to tonight's semi final at the Camp Nou. As such, this site has been a bit neglected and there aren't the kind of previews here that I would have liked to have shared. As it is, this post itself is a little rushed: written on the hoof after a bit of heavy night that ended up with La Liga Review putting the world of Spanish football to rights in a bar, somewhere in Barcelona, with the good Dr Sid Lowe.
Posting from a Blackberry on a night bus to Arenys de Mar at four in the morning is probably not going to produce the best blog post in history, but it may actually lead to it being more coherent than normal.
Yet through the Rioja induced fog, there are a few things that stand out from Frank Rijkaard's press conference earlier in the evening: some statistics.
Frank Rijkaard has won two La Liga titles and a Champions League trophy in four years. His Barcelona side didn't just win those titles, they waltzed off with them, playing and winning with style: with a flourish, as the late, great Danny Blanchflower once said.
Furthermore, Barcelona are unbeaten in the Champions League this season: The Catalan's five home victories present a 10-1 aggregate scoreline. Historically, Barcelona have lost just one of 14 previous meetings here with English sides in the European Champion Clubs' Cup; and versus United, they have recorded home wins of 2-0 and 4-0 plus a dramatic 3-3 draw in the 1998/99 season.
In spite of it all, Barcelona go in to tonights match as underdogs and the team from Manchester go in to the match as firm favourites. Even Xavi Hernandez agrees that Ferguson's side have the edge, as he admitted to La Liga Review in an interview on Wednesday.
Not only are Barcelona being tipped to lose the match, but coach Frank Rijkaard is also being tipped to lose his job. Barcelona, as they head in to a champions League semi final, are a club in crisis, according to the Catalan press. The Barcelona manager is under enormous pressure, he and his players have lost the support of the fans and the mood that engulfs the club is one of pessimism.
Things are so bad that the club is even running adverts on Catalan television begging the fans to support the team: the players put through the degrading experience of being shown holding a banner pleading for the self proclaimed 'greatest, most passionate and loyal fans in the world' to get behind their team in a Champions League semi final.
Yet, to his credit, Frank Rijkaard showed no bitterness at his treatment by a club and support that always forces it's stars out the back door. The Dutchman was asked, at last night's press conference, if he was envious of the backing that Ferguson has received at Old Trafford that contrasts so starkly with Rijkaard's treatment at the Camp Nou.
"Ferguson has created that culture at Manchester United . It exists because everyone can see that he is so good at what he does. I have a great deal of respect for Sir Alex Ferguson. He's done a great job. Without a doubt he is one of the best and most influential around. He is the embodiment of football form me," said Rijkaard - just days after having his house burgled. It seems that when they want rid of you in Barcelona, then it's citizens will go to extraordinary lengths to let you know.
Rijkaard deserves a great deal of praise for his conduct in the face of such impossible circumstances. One can hardly imagine Schuster behaving with such dignity.
That is not to say that the team is not without it's problems or that the side is beyond criticism. On the one hand, its should be remembered that Rijkaard has been shorn of some of his best players for very large parts of the season: Eto'o, Messi, Deco and Ronaldinho; yet on the other hand there is a malaise that grips this dressing room that goes beyond a couple of pulled hamstrings and dodgy knees.
There have clearly been issues within this team and the side's best players have become complacent. As Xavi told La Liga Review "after Paris, a lot of people here thought that they could walk out on the pitch and win by just turning up. It doesn't work like that, as they have since found out."
However, this is a Champions League final, and perhaps the team can lift themselves for one last time: one last crack at glory before this Barcelona side is disbanded in the summer. If they cannot motivate themselves for tonight, they never will.
It's St Georges day, the patron Saint of Catalunya, and the city is bedecked in Catalan flags and red roses. History, myths and symbols are important to this little nation. One of its most important national symbols, alongside St George and Montserrat, is the FC Barcelona Dream Team that, under Johan Cruyff, lifted the European Cup back in 1992 and stamped Barcelona's name in the annals of football folklore.
Xavi reminisced with La Liga Review about a game that both were present at in 1994, when that famous Barcelona 'Dream Team' tore Ferguson's to shreds, beating them 4-0. "That was one of the best games that I have ever seen. Awesome, "said Xavi.
Can Barcelona do it again?
"Ojala! Lets I hope so, I really, really do hope so!" said Xavi.
La Liga Review is off to the Camp Nou, to enjoy what is going to be a great game of football. Its a clash between two differing styles, the pace and power of the premiership against the passing and movement of FC Barcelona. The head says 2-0 to Manchester United - the heart says 3-1 to Barcelona, or is that just the Rioja talking.
Carles Puyol is suspended, and of course, Ronaldinho is out injured.
However, Lionel Messi is back from a hamstring injury and in his first re-appearance at the weekend, looked very, very dangerous.
Rafael Márquez and Andrés Iniesta, who have struggled with injuries should also start, and both looked fine as they practiced on the Camp Nou pitch last night. Thierry Henry's high temperature has apparently dropped and may well be available - although Rijkaard remains tight lipped. Interestingly, while watching Henry going through the motions at training, a journalist close to the United camp - very close - revealed to La Liga Review that Ferguson is hoping that Henry plays. The Scot believes that Henry has been in steady decline over the last few years and his performances at Barcelona unbalance and undermine an otherwise lethal forward line. Somehow, La Liga Review does not find Ferguson's assessment hard to discredit.
For Manchester United, Rooney has been given the all clear, after recovering from a bruised hip and is likely to play - together with Cristiano Ronaldo and Ji-Sung Park.
Sir Alex Ferguson may well be without Nemanja Vidic and Wes Brown as both missed last nights training session at the Camp Nou. Vidic missed the entire session for treatment of the knee injury suffered in the quarter-final against Roma three weeks ago, and there is also a rumour doing the rounds amongst the Manchester press pack that he is suffering from a serious stomach bug.
The author's Interview with Xavi Hernandez was shown on UEFA Champions League weekly, ITV Monday 21 April. Excerpts published here.strong>